Alabama football: Smoke 'em if you got 'em, but at what cost as Tua goes down?
It was 9:31 p.m. CT when the entire Alabama Crimson Tide Nation held their breath.
There was Tua Tagovailoa, slow to get up. Then there was No. 13, limping, heading to the injury tent.
Every step was excruciating. Every co-ed clutched their sun-dressed heart watching the hopes and dreams of Alabama football slowly make his way to the locker room.
A queue started forming outside Bryant-Denny Stadium of fans looking to donate their ankles. ESPN’s talking heads dusted off and double-checked their Mac Jones notes.
This wasn’t the first time Alabama’s sweet Hawaiian prince has been hurt, after all. The electrifying junior spent the second half of the 2018 season gimping through pain in both ankles and willing the Tide to the CFP title game.
But something felt different about this one. Even well after the 35-13 Alabama victory that improved the Crimson Tide to 7-0, this was not exactly a game worth remembering as much as many others.
With nothing to lose, Tennessee played loose and tough. With everything to lose, Alabama played tight at times before its talent advantage took over.
But at the end of the cool West Alabama evening, all eyes, hearts and lower-leg extremities were concerned with Tagovailoa — who did not return to action or the sideline after going 11-of-12 for 155 yards and an interception.
The start of the Third Saturday in October was much more festive than the rest of it, obviously. Alabama’s epilepsy-inducing light show at Bryant-Denny Stadium seemed to wow home crowd and the ESPN crew while sending TV viewers to their color-correct knobs trying to make it less blue on their screen. One can only wonder how long the Tide will stick with the Saturday Night Fever-style show — if the blue-hairs that buy skyboxes gripe faster than will Nick Saban about all the annoying blinky-blinky lights.
And Tennessee seemed like it was playing 4D chess by choosing to keep Jeremy Pruitt as coach with hopes that Saban would take pity on his former assistant and keep the score under triple digits.
The Tide struck first on its opening drive. Tagovailoa hit Jerry Jeudy on a first-down RPO slant for 19 yards. Alabama got a pass interference and a defensive holding near the goal line, then punched it in on a Najee Harris 1-yard dive to make it 7-0.
Tagovailoa made his first mistake of the game, and second of the season, on the Tide’s second drive. Following an Alabama pick and crossing route to Jeudy down inside the 10, Tagovailoa scrambled out of a sack only to throw an easy interception to Nigel Warrior at the goal line.
Tennessee immediately capitalized on the mistake, as Warrior returned the gift to the Tide 41 and the Vols motored the rest of the way — with quarterback Brian Maurer scoring on a 2-yard sneak to tie it at 7.
Continuing to ground-and-pound on the Vols, Alabama made it 14-7 by doing what it used to do best: Run the dang ball. Harris shredded the Tennessee defense for 28 yards on 4 carries and, 2 plays after Tagovailoa hit Henry Ruggs III for 18 yards, Brian Robinson Jr. barreled in for an 18-yard TD and a 14-7 lead.
Maurer was back on the field despite dropping himself on his noggin last week. You couldn’t help but to think he might have made a mistake in rushing through UT’s concussion protocol as he lasted barely one quarter before leaving again — this time he was assisted by a Shane Lee hit that drove Maurer’s head into a Vol lineman’s knee and out of the game.
That brought in Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee’s starting quarterback heading into the fall. One could see why Pruitt went with Maurer over Guarantano, as the Vols sputtered and stalled out of a drive in the red zone en route to a field goal that made it 14-10.
The next drive was almost all Tagovailoa, as he dialed up Miller Forristall for 14, Ruggs for 48, Robinson for 8 and Jeudy for 7 to the brink of the goal line — where Harris duped all 11 Vols on the field to waltz into the end zone for a 21-10 advantage.
It wasn’t long after that when Alabama’s entire 2019 narrative changed. Tagovailoa went down in a heap being taken down by Greg Emerson while scrambling to complete a short screen pass to Robinson. Jones came in and the Alabama offense instantly looked more like Akron. Even an end-of-quarter drive stalled out without points when Joseph Bulovas hooked a 41-yard field goal attempt.
Tagovailoa didn’t even return to the sidelines for the 2nd half, and the rest of the Crimson Tide offense seemed to dawdle with him. Alabama quickly went 3-and-out to start the 3rd quarter and gave it to the Vols –who converted it into a 32-yard Brent Cimaglia field goal.
As news emerged that Tagovailoa left Bryant-Denny Stadium in an ambulance, the Crimson Tide offense finally got it together on the legs of Harris. The junior got 6 carries in 7 plays to take him over 100 rushing yards for the game, and then offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian dipped into his bag of tricks — as reserve WR/high school QB Slade Bolden lined up in an apparent Wildcat play only to find Forristall wide open in the end zone to make it 28-13.
But Alabama’s defense, which had been tested all night by a plucky Tennessee offense led by a backup QB, turned in the most electrifying play of the night to turn the lights out on the Vols. Tennessee had driven all the way to the Tide 1 and attempted to run a QB sneak. but Alabama’s Lee shot the gap and punched the ball out of Guarantano’s hands — a freebie that Trevon Diggs scooped up 1 yard in the end zone and sprinted 100 yards to the house.
That play, for whatever reason, triggered Pruitt. He visibly yelled at Guarantano and tugged on the QB’s face mask while heading to the sidelines to further undress the junior backup in front of 101,000 fans collectively searching for their cigars and lighters.
Even with all those freshly-lit Cohibas cutting the cool evening skies and “Rammer Jammer” ringing in the ears of the Vols for the 13th straight time, one couldn’t help but wonder if all the cigars in the world could be traded for two healthy Tua Tagovailoa ankles.